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Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Tuesday, 12 October 2010 17:45 UK
Edith Cavell's life remembered in new book
Edith Cavell's grave at Norwich Cathedral
Edith Cavell has been credited with helping 1,500 men to safety during WWI

The life of Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell is being remembered in a new book which celebrates the work she carried out in World War I.

The book marks the 95th anniversary of her execution for helping allied soldiers flee German-occupied Belgium.

Cavell was born in Swardeston in 1865 and is buried at Norwich Cathedral.

"I wanted to write about altruism... and I don't think you could find anyone who fitted the bill better than Edith Cavell," said author Diana Souhami.

"She was a real public servant through and through and it's quite refreshing to write about somebody who thinks about other people all the time rather than about themselves," she added.

Victorian upbringing

Edith Cavell was born to Reverend Frederick Cavell, the vicar of Swardeston.

"She had a typical Victorian upbringing, in fact she found her father's sermons rather dull. She was herself a devout Christian but she found her own way of being Christian, which was to work for others as a nurse," said Diana.

Monument to Edith Cavell outside Norwich Cathedral Close
Monuments to Cavell exist around the country including Norwich

"She trained as a nurse in the Florence Nightingale tradition. She then went to Brussels to start up the first ever training school for nurses and was a hospital matron there when the Germans marched into Belgium in 1914," she added.

Despite being celebrated as a key figure in Allied resistance in mainland Europe, Diana argues that Cavell did not consciously set out to occupy that role.

"Most of the First World War was fought in fields and trenches and when these soldiers got separated from their regiments, if they were picked up they were shot or sent to prisoner of war camps," said Diana.

"When two of them arrived wounded at the door of her clinic she let them in and she nursed them. It then followed from that that she helped them get to the Dutch border because Holland was neutral, then to freedom.

"She didn't really set out to become a resistance worker, it was just she wouldn't turn away anyone who came in need to her door and that was how it began."

Great risk

From those first two men fortunate enough to stumble across her door, Cavell went on the assist numerous troops back across the border.

"It's hard to know the exact numbers but the estimates are that she probably aided about up to 1,500 soldiers to get freedom," said Diana.

By harbouring the soldiers and smuggling them to safety, Cavell was placing her own life at great risk - something which eventually led to her capture and death.

"The whole place was thick with secret police and they rounded up this whole network. She learned that the men outside who were ostensibly mending the road weren't in fact doing that, they were spying on her," said Diana.

"The network was rounded up and then there was a sort of kangaroo court and a mock trial, a travesty of a trial, in which 35 of them were tried in two days and indicted.

"It was a foregone conclusion that they would be found guilty."

Diana's belief that Cavell was acting altruistically is borne out by the dangers of the role she was playing.

"I think she knew she ran the risks. I don't think she thought she would be executed, I think she thought she'd be imprisoned, but she was shot because she was English," said Diana.


Ediths Cavell's grave
Cavell's final resting place is located in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral

She was held for ten weeks in solitary confinement before her execution and after her death her story was used to further the war effort, something which Diana believes went totally against what she stood for.

"I think the trouble was after she died it was used for propaganda purposes to get more soldiers to recruit and go to that awful war. Ten million fighting men were killed in that war.

"When she was given communion before she died, the priest said: 'We'll remember you as a heroine and a martyr.'

"And she said: 'Don't think of me like that, think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.'

"I think the real way to remember her is as a true public servant."

There are still monuments, hospitals and roads named after Edith Cavell - there is statue near Trafalgar Square in London - and there were calls at the time for a state funeral with her remains being laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

Today however, she resides closer to home in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.

"The family wanted her to be in Norwich because they were Norfolk through and through," said Diana.

For more information on Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami visit her website.

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